The ability of voting groups to form a recognized political party in North Carolina just got a whole lot easier. Senate Bill 656, the Electoral Freedom Act of 2017, lowers the threshold for establishing a recognized political party in a number of ways.
The bill also makes it easier for unaffiliated candidates to participate in the election process (an unaffiliated candidate is one who does not belong to any recognized political party). Membership in both of the major political parties has been declining as of late in North Carolina, and as of early September, voters who registered as “unaffiliated” outnumbered registered Republicans statewide for the first time ever.
“North Carolina has long had one of the stricter requirements for third-party candidates to get on the ballot,” said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University. “This bill would make it easier for third-party candidates to qualify for the ballot and provide additional pathways for third parties to do so, and would also slightly ease the requirements for unaffiliated candidates to qualify for the ballot.”
SB656 originally passed in both the House and Senate on a mostly party-line votes earlier this month. Despite a gubernatorial veto last week, the bill is now law thanks to a bipartisan override on Tuesday. This is the tenth time the General Assembly has overriden a veto issued by Governor Cooper.
The leaders of the North Carolina’s Green Party, Constitution Party, and Libertarian Party were all quick to praise the ballot access provisions and were pleased that the governor’s veto of SB656 was overridden by the legislature. The “Electoral Freedom Act is the most significant ballot access bill passed by the legislature in decades,” they said in a joint statement. “It dramatically lowers the barriers for new political parties and independent candidates to get on the ballot, thus giving all North Carolinians more freedom of choice on election day.”
Until now, in order to qualify as a new political party in North Carolina, groups were required to get enough signatures on a petition that would equal at least 2 percent of the total vote for governor in the most recent election. In the 2016 election, for example, there were 4,769,640 ballots cast for governor; 2 percent of that total is equal to 95,393 required signatures.
The new law lowers that threshold to just .25 percent — so until the 2020 elections, only 11,924 signatures will be required to form a new political party. The petition must still be filed with the appropriate board of elections and the signatures must only be those of qualified registered voters. The new party would also have to get at least 200 signatures from registered voters from several congressional districts in the state; but the new law changes this to at least three districts instead of four.
There are benefits to being a legally recognized party. The most important, of course, is ballot access; that is, getting your candidate’s name on an election ballot (G.S. 163-165.5). Other benefits include getting access to a free copy of statewide computerized voter registration file (G.S. 163-82.13), being allowed access to schools and public buildings for political meetings (G.S. 163-99), and having a party chair allowed to recommend precinct officials (G.S. 163-41).
SB656 allows candidates of an otherwise unrecognized party to get on the ballot if that party provides documentation that it appeared on the general election ballot in at least 35 states (70%) in the most recent presidential election. The Green Party of North Carolina would be the first to benefit from this provision, having nominated Jill Stein as their 2016 presidential candidate. Stein was a write-in candidate here and received more than 12,000 votes.
Unaffiliated candidates could already get their names printed on ballots by getting enough signatures on a petition, but the new law greatly improves ballot access. Ballot access requirements differ depending on the office a candidate is running for — whether it’s a city, county, district or a statewide office. Here are some changes:
- For municipal offices, an unaffiliated candidate had been required to get signatures from 4 percent of the total number of registered voters in the city to appear on the ballot; now only 1.5 percent of voters is required;
- Similarly, for a congressional seat, unaffiliated candidates were also required to get signatures from 4 percent of the total number of registered voters in the district to appear on the ballot. Now it’s just 1.5 percent of the total number of registered voters in the district;
- To appear on the ballot as an unaffiliated candidate for statewide offices (e.g. U.S. Senator, Governor and other Council of State offices) a candidate was required to get signatures from 2 percent of the total vote for governor in the most recent election, plus 200 signatures from each of four congressional districts. The new law lowers that threshold to 1.5 percent of the vote for governor in the most recent election, with 200 signatures from just three congressional districts.
SB656 also reforms the way winners are determined in the crowded field of a multi-candidate primary. When there are three or more candidates in a primary election, one may receive the highest number of votes but not gat the majority of votes — in cases like this, the law says that a winner can only be declared when that candidate also achieves what is known as a substantial plurality. If no one candidate receives a substantial plurality, a second primary must be held.
“Substantial” had been defined at 40 percent; the new law says that a candidate receiving 30 percent of the vote can be declared the party’s nominee, helping to avoid a second round of voting in runoff primaries. As John Hood points out in the Carolina Journal, “Runoff primaries are expensive, low-turnout affairs. Most of the time, the top vote-getter the first time wins the second time.”
Judicial races will see some changes too. SB656 eliminates primary elections in 2018 for the Justices of the Supreme Court, judges of the Court of Appeals, judges of the superior courts, judges of the district courts — as well as candidates for district attorney. Judicial candidates will have their party affiliation shown on the ballot and winners for each race will be determined by a plurality of the vote; that is, the candidate getting the most votes wins. It was this part of SB656 that prompted the governor to issue a veto for the entire bill.